My 5 Days On The Once-Wealthy ‘Bird Shit Island’ That Now Has A Refugee ‘Gulag’

Have you ever walked in a circle around an entire country? I now have. And I did it in 3 hours and 15 minutes. 

To put it bluntly, there is not a lot to see in Nauru, the Pacific island nation that is the least visited country in the world. But because of this feat I accomplished, as well as some interesting factoids about Nauru, it is worthy of its own blog post. Oh, and I rang in 2019 in a sobering style in Nauru. So let’s see what this little island nation had to offer. 

Phosphate was the way

I departed the Marshall Islands, where I completed my infamous Island Hopper journey (United Flight 155), yet I still had more Pacific island hopping to do. If you recall, I foreshadowed that Nauru would reveal rugged beauty in decay. 

What’s in decay? It’s really the entire island, though that comes as a result of a crumbling phosphate industry. For Nauru, phosphate was the Tao. It was what led this approximately 20-square kilometer island nation to prosperity.

Old phosphate mine

Nauru was once — around the 1960s-1980s — one of the richest countries in the world per capita due to all of the phosphate mining that was occurring. The island had a huge supply of phosphate as a byproduct of the poop birds dropped there. Phosphate is a key ingredient in fertilizer and has huge demand in the agriculture industry, thus enabling the country to grow rich and rise briefly to the global leader in GDP per capita.

But the phosphate supply has by and large dried up. What’s left are decaying phosphate mines and an extremely eroded interior of the island — land that was previously mined. The interior is also home to a big scrapyard for cars, which we will address momentarily. And like the interior of the island, Nauru’s economy is now left battered as well.

Overly mined? Nauru’s heavily eroded interior

Not-so-fun facts

Once known for its wealth, Nauru is now known for its lack of health.  According to rankings released by the World Health Organization in 2017, Nauru is the most obese nation in the world with a 61% obesity rate. It was previously found that nearly 95% of Nauru’s residents are overweight.

Additionally, Nauru is a leader in diabetes. It has one of the highest diabetes rates in the world and was previously said to have the highest. This is, in part, a byproduct of the obesity problem. 

Mounting health crises

Just walking around the island shows how people are overweight and in poor health. It doesn’t help that the phosphate mining has rendered much of the island inarable and that Nauru imports lots of processed food and that Nauruans eats lots of sugar and carbs… and that they have or had multiple cars per person. 

For a tiny country, Nauru has lots of cars… or had lots of cars. In the heyday of vehicle traffic on the island, there were about four cars per person. Now it’s considerably less and a bunch of old cars lie in a scrapyard in the middle of the island. Still, there is a constant stream of vehicles on the ring road that circles the island, and Nauruans are known nowadays for a sedentary lifestyle. 

Car cemetery

How small is Nauru? In miles, the country is just eight square miles, making it the third smallest nation in the world by land mass. Nauru trails only Vatican City and Monaco in the smallest country rankings, and both of those microstates are monarchies. Hence, Nauru is the smallest independent republic in the world by land mass. Okay… maybe that is a fun fact. 😊

Nauru is also the third smallest country in the world by population, trailing only the Vatican and nearby Tuvalu. Nauru has about 11,000 people.

Now here comes the interesting population figure:

At one point rather recently, this island nation of 11,000 regular inhabitants had about 2,000 refugees. This is because, in the aftermath of Nauru’s economy tanking and the country basically going bankrupt, it turned to serving as Australia’s migrant processor in order to bring Aussie dollars into state coffers. The Australian dollar (AUD) is the currency in Nauru, by the way, and the island is very dependent on Australia in general. 

Anyway, Nauru regained some fame in recent years for the supposed terrible treatment of refugees being held in a detention center on the island as they awaited entry to Australia. I was lucky enough to visit the facility, which used to be extremely difficult to get into. Details are coming up…

Getting acquainted with the island and its politicians

From Majuro, I flew Nauru Airlines to Nauru. Nauru Airlines, formerly known as Air Nauru, is the largest airline in the Central Pacific and offers island hopping routes similar to United. It is the flag carrier of Nauru and heavily subsidized by the island’s government. 

When we arrived in Nauru it was raining like crazy. The rain didn’t really stop over the next 5 days. I guess there was an El Nino or La Nina phenomenon in the Pacific at the time.

Weather could be better

I checked into my hotel, the Menen. The Menen Hotel is rusty, but it has a restaurant and bar and basic amenities. The internet worked, but not in my room, only in the common area.

After checking in, I took a little trip around the island. The first stop was Nauru’s parliament and government buildings. This was an interesting experience because the group I was with just walked right into the president’s office. The president wasn’t there at the time, but still… where else do you get to, without an invitation, just walk right into the office of a country’s president??

How every president’s office should be

The funniest office we visited was that of some minister. I don’t remember which minister it was. Actually that’s part of why it was funny. There was no sign inside or outside the office say which minister worked there. But there was a sign about a bingo draw. So let’s just call him the Nauruan minister of bingo.

We went inside the parliament and sat in the prime minister’s seat… just for fun. Again, these are things you can do just minutes after showing up in this island nation.

Take a seat…

On a related note, Nauru’s government has established some interesting diplomatic links over the years, particularly with Taiwan. Nauruan politicians don’t hesitate to show their affection for Taiwan and piss off China while doing so.

Basically a middle finger to China

Exploring the island

Exploring Nauru, of course, involved several visits to phosphate mines. Most of these mines are defunct. But there are some in the middle of the island that are still operational. We visited one. 

An operational phosphate mine

Along the coast there are old conveyor belts for loading phosphate onto ships. One was a lot of fun to explore. You can climb the old conveyor belt and no one will stop you. The conveyor belt really epitomizes “rugged beauty in decay.” It is falling apart.

At last, rugged beauty in decay

Nauru actually has enough phosphate to last until 2050. But the bird shit on the island isn’t worth what it once was. So Nauruans don’t really profit from phosphate mining anymore. 

Enough to last till 2050, for what it’s worth…

In addition to being dotted with decaying phosphate conveyor belts, the coast of Nauru has sharp cliffs and a handful of beaches with very low lying coral reef. The coral lies only about 100 meters from the shoreline.

Most of the beaches are not suitable for swimming. Nauru’s harbor is actually the only place for swimming. It’s also the main gathering point on the island. Every afternoon or evening, lots of Nauruans gather at the harbor and go for a swim. I opted instead to take a boat out to some reefs and go snorkeling.

In the middle of the island, other than eroded stones, there are World War II relics. They include old guns, caves and bunkers, as well as a Japanese prison. For your background information, the Japanese occupied Nauru for three years during World War II.

Ready, aim, pretend to fire

Speaking of a prison, Nauru has a new (empty) prison that I also visited. It looked to me like Nauru is positioning itself to host the next Guantanamo once the U.S. prison camp in Cuba closes. Nauru’s existing refugee detention facility, the other main attraction of the interior, has already been dubbed “Australia’s Guantanamo.” But more on that in a moment…

The next Guantanamo?

Given that Nauru is so small and there aren’t other major attractions, the group I was with boarded the bus for some good, old Nauruan entertainment — bar hopping the island. In a span of four hours, we visited every bar in the country. This was in stark contrast to how we spent New Year’s Eve. 

New Year’s

Why was this a sobering New Year’s? It wasn’t because I was so close to the international date line that I finished celebrating the start of 2019  before most of the world began their celebrations. Rather, it was because the Nauruan government imposed a total ban on the sale of alcohol on New Year’s Eve. This was because the country as a whole has a sizable drinking problem.

On the last day of 2018, I went around the island, going store to store trying to buy some booze. But it was impossible to get alcohol unless you were a foreigner staying in a hotel. Then you were exempt from the rule. That was the case with me, but all the Menen Hotel had to offer was overpriced vodka bottles — like 70 AUD for some not-so-great vodka.

No booze here (on New Year’s)

I should mention that prices are quite high on the island. For instance, a glass of wine in Nauru goes for 12 AUD. When you consider how much most Nauruans earn nowadays, these prices seem very high.

Anyway, I didn’t want the overpriced vodka. Instead I opted to ring in 2019 while drinking ginger ale. Maybe it’s not such an amusing story, but this put me in great shape to circle the island the next day. 

And I did manage to have some fun in my Pacific New Year’s. I celebrated with fellow tourists at the Menen and a couple of Aussies and Kiwis who were working at the refugee center. The hotel had water balloons, which we chucked at one another in the pool and poolside when the clock struck midnight. 

The walk around the country

I woke up on January 1, 2019 hangover-free. This put me where I needed to be mentally and physically in order to walk in a circle around an entire country. I worked in the morning and cleared my schedule for later in the day.

Walk stats

In the evening I set out on my walk, starting at my hotel and then circling the island on the coastal road. The 16.59 km walk gave me a good impression of life on Nauru. I saw basically everywhere people live and got a good grasp of their lifestyles. The walk also made a great first workout of the year, and it gave me time and space for some early 2019 introspection. 

One observation: Nauru has happy kids

You already know I completed the not-so-difficult trek around the entire country in 3 hours and 15 minutes. Given that it only took me that long, I think it’s possible for most Nauruans to complete a walk around their country. Or at the least they should try. And no need to take it from me — some local or locals have already been preaching the message:

I walked the walk, but will Nauruans do so too?

The famed refugee detention center

Here it is!

The Nauru Regional Processing Center is one of Australia’s two offshore migrant/asylum seeker detention facilities. It is where asylum seekers are held — sometimes for years — as they wait to hear whether or not they will be let into Australia.

The detention center was hyped by Amnesty International as Australia’s “open-air prison” and by Reporters Without Borders as the “Pacific gulag.” Australia’s refugee detention center in Nauru has been scandalous and has triggered human rights advocates and journalists alike. The living conditions were said to be horrible, and journalists who wanted to visit the detention center needed to get an 8,000 AUD media visa. In some cases, the Nauruan government was accused of pocketing the money and not granting the visa.

Reports suggested that inside the detention center there was sexual abuse, rioting, hunger striking, self-immolation and child suicide attempts. The processing center, which was opened in 2001 and closed for a period spanning 2008-2012, eventually became an open center, meaning refugees were free to come and go. However, their options on the island were obviously limited.

The detention center population dwindled prior to my arrival. Some asylum seekers were finally allowed to settle in Australia, while others were sent back to their home countries. Most of the remaining kids at the detention center were moved to Australia shortly before Christmas, just days before I arrived. 

Presumably painted by refugee kids before they departed for Australia

By the time I landed on the island, the scandal was also dying down. I was allowed to walk right into the facility — just like with the president’s office — and speak with some of the refugees. I didn’t have to pay a single AUD to get in. 

There were 55 asylum seekers at the facility when I visited. Almost all of them were young men. Almost all of the women and children have already gotten entry into Australia. I met a lot of “Rohingya” Muslims from Myanmar (On a stateless migration tangent, do you recall the time I snuck into Myanmar, aka Burma?).

Here is your chance to get to know one of these allegedly persecuted Rohingya people who was kind enough to welcome a group of visitors into his government-sponsored home (off-site) and tell us his story:

Getting to know Kobir

Audio recording of the interview with Kobir. Sorry for the poor quality sound.

Kobir is 32. He fled Myanmar at age 22 along with other persecuted “Rohingya” Muslims. Kobir made it to Malaysia, where he lived and worked for some years. Eventually, he decided he wanted to reunite with his family in Melbourne, Australia.

He paid human traffickers in Indonesia $3,000 to bring him to Christmas Island, the Australian territory closest to Asia. Kobir then boarded a small boat with 200 people and spent 3 stormy days and nights at sea before reaching the Australian territory. 

Kobir and the other migrants were immediately detained on Christmas Island. Kobir was later brought to Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea, where Australia’s other overseas detention facility is located. After Manus, he was transferred to Nauru. 

As 2019 begins, Kobir has already been stuck in Nauru for more than 5 years. At this point, he is fairly assimilated into life on the island. He lives free of charge in some of the limited off-site housing available for asylum seekers. The Australian government also gives him 400 AUD a month for food. Additionally, he has been granted permission to work in Nauru. Kobir works in construction and makes 5-7 AUD per hour. By the end of every 2 months, he has saved up enough money to send 500 AUD to relatives living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

If there were horrible living conditions in the detention center, they do not exist anymore. The refugees have adapted well to island life, but they live with uncertainty about when, if ever, they will finally be granted entry to Australia. 

The global migrant crisis carries on, but Nauru now plays little part in it. As for Kobir, he remains hopeful he will join his family in Australia soon. 

Nauru — worth a visit?

Overall, it was an interesting experience in Nauru. I was one just about 200 people who visit the island nation yearly. The walk around the country was the most memorable part of my stay, and the refugee center visit and interview were fun. It felt like I was playing the role of investigative journalist. 

The Bay Restaurant – basically the only non-Chinese restaurant on the island

But spending 5 days on the island, with bad weather most of the time and limited food options, gets old in a hurry. After a few days, the island started to feel very tiny. I can understand why refugees stuck in Nauru for five years go crazy and need mental health help. And as for what really happened to the purportedly abused migrants in Nauru, it remains a mystery… kind of like that other Pacific island underage sex scandal.

Bye Nauru